The World's Smallest Car is One Tricked-Out Ride.
The microscopic world inside each of our cells is full of marvelous little molecular machines. Cells use tools analogous to motors, propellers, corkscrews, scissors, power generators and sewing machines to keep metabolism and cell division happening. If we hope to one day build our own nanomachines capable of functioning in that world, they’ll need to have their own tools for locomotion, generating power and manipulating their environment. Dutch researchers recently created a proof-of-concept prototype for the very first powered nanomachine, the world’s smallest car. The electric-powered vehicle is roughly one-billionth the size of a traditional car and is essentially a single molecule with a chassis and four paddle-shaped wheels. While it lacks cruise control, power steering and Sirius radio, it does have the ability lurch forward in response to a 500 millivolt electrical jolt. The point here was simply to prove that a single molecule could absorb external electrical energy and turn it into targeted motion.
“To build the nanotechnology of the future like robots, machines and transporters you need something to fuel it, so there is a great incentive to build motors at the nanoscale,” says Ben Feringa, professor of organic chemistry at the University of Groningen, and one of the authors of the research published in the journal Nature. “There are many nanosystems built from all kinds of materials, but this is, as far as we can tell, the first time a nanomotor has been used to propel something by fueling it.” The fuel in this case is electricity delivered by the atom-sized stylus of an electron microscope.
The jury is still out on whether we’ll ever have the technology to develop sophisticated, universal assembler nanobots such as those described in K. Eric Drexler’s seminal book “Engines of Creation,” but small advances are piling up, and within a few decades we may have simple molecular machines capable of performing such tasks as delivering medicine to targeted cells or hunting down and destroying cancer.